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Human Zoos - October 2006


I can't believe that at one time Africans were displayed in zoos for the entertainment of others. How do you explain this phenomenon?

-- Casey Gould, Hillsdale, Michigan


Human zoos (also called "ethnological expositions" or "Negro villages") were 19th and 20th century public exhibits of human beings usually in their "natural" or "primitive" state. These displays usually emphasized the "cultural differences" between indigenous and "traditional" peoples and Western publics. Ethnographic zoos were often predicated on unilinealism, scientific racism, and a version of Social Darwinism. A number of them placed indigenous people (particularly Africans) in a continuum somewhere between the great apes and human beings of European descent. For this reason, ethnographic zoos have since been criticized as highly degrading and racist.

The first "human zoos"

One of the first modern public human exhibitions was P.T. Barnum's exhibition of Joice Heth on February 25, 1836 and, subsequently, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. However, the notion of the human curiosity has a history at least as long as colonialism. For instance, Columbus brought Indians from his voyage to the New World to the Spanish court in 1493.1 Another famous example was that of Saartjie Baartman, a member of the Namaqua tribe, better known as the "Hottentot Venus", who was displayed in London until her death in 1815. She was then examined by French anatomist Georges Cuvier, and her remains were kept on display at the Parisian Musee de l'Homme until 1974. However, "human zoos" would become common only in the 1870s in the midst of the New Imperialism period.

1870s to World War II

Exhibitions of exotic populations became popular in various countries in the 1870s. Human zoos could be found in Hamburg, Anvers, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York, Warsaw with 200,000 to 300,000 visitors attending each exhibition. In Germany, Karl Hagenbeck, a merchant in wild animals and future entrepreneur of many Europeans zoos, decided in 1874 to exhibit Samoan and Sami people (Laplanders) as "purely natural" populations. In 1876, he sent a collaborator to the Egyptian Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and Nubians. The Nubian exhibit was very successful in Europe and toured Paris, London, and Berlin.

Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, director of the Parisian Jardin d'acclimatation, decided in 1877 to organize two "ethnological spectacles" that presented Nubians and Inuit. That year, the audience of the Jardin d'acclimatation doubled to one million. Between 1877 and 1912, approximately thirty "ethnological exhibitions" were presented at the Jardin zoologique d'acclimatation.

Both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World's Fair presented a "Negro village" (village negre). Visited by 28 million people, the 1889 World's Fair displayed 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. The 1900 World's Fair presented the famous diorama "living in Madagascar", while the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) also displayed human beings in cages, often nude or semi-nude.2 The 1931 exhibition in Paris was so successful that 34 million people attended it in six months while a smaller counter-exhibition entitled "The Truth on the Colonies", organized by the Communist Party, attracted very few visitors-in the first room, it recalled Albert Londres and Andre Gide's critics of forced labour in the colonies. Nomadic "Senegalese villages" were also presented.

Native people of Suriname were displayed in the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in Amsterdam held behind the Rijksmuseum in 1883.

In 1906, socialite and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant, head of the New York Zoological Society, had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City alongside apes and other animals. At the behest of Grant, a prominent eugenicist, the zoo director placed Ota Benga in a cage with an orangutan and labeled him "The Missing Link," illustrating that in evolutionary terms Africans like Ota Benga were closer to apes than were Europeans.

Although such views had passed far from the mainstream of anthropological thought by the mid-20th century, a "Congolese village" was displayed at the Brussels World Fair in 1958.3

Analysis of the "human zoo" phenomenon

Scholars argue that the zoos and the attention they garnered reflected a broader colonialist ambition and also argue that human zoos can be linked to three distinct but interrelated phenomena: the construction of an imaginary Other; the theorization of a "hierarchy of races"; and the construction of colonial empires. The historian Pascal Blanchard and coauthors write that:

Human zoos, the incredible symbols of the colonial period and the transition from the nineteenth to twentieth century, have been completely suppressed in our collective history and memory. Yet they were major social events. The French, Europeans and Americans came in their tens of millions to discover the "savage" for the first time in zoos or "ethnographic" and colonial fairs. These exhibitions of the exotic (the future "native") laid the foundations on which, over an almost sixty-year period, was spun the West's progressive transition from a "scientific" racism to a colonial and "mass" racism affecting millions of "visitors" from Paris to Hamburg, London to New York, Moscow to Barcelona...4

Between 1890 and World War I, displays of the noble savage turned increasingly toward more sanguinary images as the European powers made military and colonial forays into Africa. Thus, Tuaregs were exhibited after the French conquest of Timbuktu; Malagasy after the occupation of Madagascar; Amazons of Abomey after Behanzin's 1894 mediatic defeat against the French.

The various so-called "races" were hierarchically disposed in the racist discourse. For example, when the Cossacks were invited to the Jardin zoologique d'acclimatation, the Russian embassy insisted that they shouldn't be confused with the African "Negroes"; and when Buffalo Bill came with his troup, he found, without any problem, his place in the exhibition thanks to the presence of "Indians". When the "Lilliputians" were displayed, they nicely fit in the frame of difference, monstruosity, and bestiality represented by these exotic populations.

Social Darwinism was thus represented. Anthropometry and phrenology legitimized these inhumane exhibitions which also tend, retroactively, to prove these racialist theories. The exotic (and colonized) populations displayed in these zoos went along with the exhibitions of "monsters": dwarves, hunchbacks, giants or albinos "Negroes" as in Paris in 1912. "Doubtlessly eugenics, social darwinism, and racial hierarchy dialectically answer themselves together..."The 'human zoos' thus find themselves in a crossroads between popular racism and scientific objectification of the racial hierarchy, both supported by the colonial expansion."5a Between 1890 and World War I, a sanguinary image of the "savage" was created thus destroying the myth of the Noble savage.

As long as they were displayed, the "savages" were forbidden from showing any sign of assimilation. However, being exhibited for several years, some did force their jailers to pay them-even if the wages were of course ridiculously low. At the time, few were concerned about the health of these prisoners; many Galibis, not used to the cold climate, died in Paris in 1892. "Isn't there the will-deliberate or inconscious-of legitiming [sic] the conquerants' brutality animalizing the conquested? In this animalization, transgression of the values and norms of what constitutes, for Europe, civilization is a motor element."5b

A fascination for the body and "vigorous sexuality" of the "savage" was also displayed, a theme related to the alleged "Occidental biological degeneration". Until the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris in Vincennes where Kanaks were displayed, images of "anthropophagy" also become very popular in the mass medias.

To further illustrate the indignities heaped upon the Philippine people following their eventual loss to the Americans, the United States made the Philippine campaign the centrepoint of the 1904 World's Fair held that year in St. Louis, MI [sic]. In what was enthusiastically termed a "parade of evolutionary progress," visitors could inspect the "primitives" that represented the counterbalance to "Civilisation" justifying Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden". Pygmies from New Guinea and Africa, who were later displayed in the Primate section of the Bronx Zoo, were paraded next to American Indians such as Apache warrior Geronimo, who sold his autograph. But the main draw was the Philippine exhibit complete with full size replicas of Indigenous living quarters erected to exhibit the inherent backwardness of the Philippine people. The purpose was to highlight both the "civilising" influence of American rule and the economic potential of the island chains' natural resources on the heels of the Philippine-America War. It was, reportedly, the largest specific Aboriginal exhibit displayed in the exposition. As one pleased visitor commented, the human zoo exhibit displayed "the race narrative of odd peoples who mark time while the world advances, and of savages made, by American methods, into civilized workers."6

The legacy of "human zoos"

The concept of the human zoo has not completely disappeared. A "Congolese village" was displayed at the Brussels 1958 World's Fair.7 An "African Village" was opened in Augsburg's zoo in Germany in July 2005.8 According to a June 1994 article by Le Monde diplomatique, a human zoo was present in the village of Huang-Haen in Burma, visited by most tourist agencies.9 In August 2005, the London Zoo also displayed human beings wearing fig leaves (though in this case, the humans volunteered).10 At Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States, a recreation of a Wampanoag village can be found adjacent to the reconstructed Plimoth Colony, staffed by Native Americans in traditional garb.11


1 "On A Neglected Aspect Of Western Racism" by Kurt Jonassohn, December 2000, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

2 On the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris

3 (French) Cobelco. Belgium human zoo; "Peut-on exposer des Pygmees?", Le Soir, July 27, 2002.

4 "Le retour des zoos humains (par Pascal Blanchard et Olivier Barlet)", Africacultures, October 28, 2005.;"From human zoos to colonial apotheoses: the era of exhibiting the Other by Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel and Sandrine Lemaire (English version)", Africacultures, October 28, 2005.;Black Deutschland, von Oliver Hardt

5 a b "Human zoos - Racist theme parks for Europe's colonialists", Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2000. (English); "Ces zoos humains de la République coloniale", Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2000. (French, available to everyone)

6 "The Passions of Suzie Wong Revisited, by Rev. Sequoyah Ade", Aboriginal Intelligence, January 4, 2004.

7 (French) Cobelco. Belgium human zoo ; "Peut-on exposer des Pygmees?", Le Soir, July 27, 2002.

8 (English) (French) "Vers un nouveau zoo humain en Allemagne ? (original text in English below the French translation)", Indymedia, December 6, 2005.; (English) "England Hacks Away at the Shaken EU", Der Spiegel, June 6, 2005.; "A Different View of the Human Zoo", Der Spiegel, June 13, 2005.; "Zoo sparks row over 'tribesmen' props for animals, by Allan Hall", The Scotsman, June 8, 2005.; Critical analysis of the Augsburg human zoo ("Organizers and visitors were not racist but they participated in and reflected a process that has been called racialization: the daily and often taken-for-granted means by which humans are separated into supposedly biologically based and unequal categories", etc.)

9 (French) "Survivants sans statut dans l'exil thailandais", Info Birmanie, May 24, 2004.

10 London Zoo official website;"Humans strip bare for zoo exhibit", BBC News, August 25, 2005.;"Humans On Display At London's Zoo", CBS News, August 26, 2005.;"The human zoo? by Debra Saunders (a bit more critical)", Townhall, September 1, 2005.


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